UPDATE (7/30): Cumulus Media Inc. declines comment on Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity status on its radio network during an investor conference call.
ORIGINAL POST: The second-biggest radio broadcaster in the country is threatening to dump Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, but before you celebrate the demise of conservative-talk’s most polarizing voices or curse the development as some liberal-media conspiracy — depending on your political view — take a deep breath and relax. Nothing is really going to change. For once, Limbaugh and Hannity aren’t engrossed in a political imbroglio. Reports that Cumulus Media is planning to drop the pair from 40 or so of its channels is all about the money, as Cumulus is currently in negotiations with Clear Channel’s Premiere Networks, which syndicates both shows, over distribution rights and licensing fees.
Politico trumpeted the news as a “major shakeup for the radio industry,” but that overstates the impact on Limbaugh and Hannity themselves. “The political guys just love to run with this stuff,” says Michael Harrison, the editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, a trade publication that covers talk-media. “Any time any talk-show host gets into any kind of controversy or has something happen that can be spun into a setback — the ratings go down — it’s blown out of proportion for political purposes.”
But the fact of the matter is that whether Cumulus pays Premiere’s asking price or decides to cut ties with the conservative talkers, the hosts will not lack a microphone. “If that happens, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity will be added to every Clear Channel station that’s in a market that doesn’t have them where they were on with Cumulus,” says Harrison. “And in markets where they don’t have a station, there will be other companies that will be champing at the bit to get what are clearly the two biggest properties in talk radio: Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.”
In fact, Cumulus’ hard-ball tactics could backfire. “[Cumulus CEO Lew Dickey] is playing with real fire here, because if Rush and Sean go off of Cumulus stations, then the value of their radio stations goes down because they bought them as conservative-talk stations,” says Jerry Del Colliano, an industry analyst who runs the subscription media site, Inside Music Media. “Plus, they don’t have anybody to put on the air in an era where talk radio is really dying. Who do you have to replace them? Huckabee? Michael Savage? Cumulus does not have any real options.”
Dickey has publicly lashed out at Limbaugh before, chiding him for the lost revenue that was caused by political boycotts following Limbaugh’s crude remarks about Sandra Fluke in 2012. But if Cumulus wanted to be out of the Limbaugh business once and for all, they likely wouldn’t still be negotiating with Premiere, in and out of the media. (Neither Cumulus nor Premiere responded to EW’s requests for comment.)
Tomorrow, Dickey is scheduled to announce Cumulus’ second quarter earnings at a shareholders’ meeting, and one can imagine that he’d like to bring some good news with him. “This is like two snakes in the grass,” says Del Colliano. “They’ll hurt each other, they’ll call each other names, but don’t be surprised if there isn’t a deal at the end of the day.”